With the spring apple blossom time upon us, it might seem a bit early to be thinking about harvest, but the extra labor needed at harvest is already a major concern for much

of the U.S. apple industry, and other labor-intensive agriculture. USApple is working for passage of federal legislation that would provide a steady, reliable, able, and legal supply of workers. Now, those efforts will be ramped up another notch, and help from across the industry is needed.

At its March meeting, USApple’s board of trustees reaffirmed the agricultural labor issue as the association’s top priority, and authorized the use of additional resources to do more to solve the problem. An aggressive, comprehensive plan is being developed and implemented to keep agriculture’s plight in the forefront of the often contentious and emotional immigration debate.

Capitol Hill experts believe that now is the time to act if there is to be hope of moving agricultural labor legislation forward. Because of the political divisiveness of the immigration issue, it is not a debate that politicians wish to engage in too close to an election year. The opening shots of the 2008 presidential campaigns are already being fired—much earlier than normal. As this contest heats up, along with a renewed battle for control of Capitol Hill, difficult issues like immigration become even more challenging. So, the time to act is now!

AgJOBS legislation pending

The apple industry is working closely with lawmakers and other labor-intensive agriculture to support the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act (AgJOBS). This legislation is the result of years of negotiations between agricultural employers and farmworkers.

Early in this congressional session, AgJOBS was introduced in Congress by a bipartisan group that included U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D–California), Larry Craig (R–California), Ted Kennedy D–Massachusetts) and Barbara Boxer (D–California) in the Senate and Representatives Howard Berman (D–California) and Chris Cannon (R–Utah) in the House.

AgJOBS has two primary goals: 1) to fix and streamline the current H-2A program; and 2) to assure agriculture has continued access to a pool of skilled labor.

Currently, the H-2A guest-worker program is groaning under the weight of its administrative burdens. The system is simply not able to handle the demands. Growers using the program report that requested workers are often delayed, leaving growers scrambling to find replacements to get fruit off the trees. In addition, the program is laden with red tape and requirements that make it difficult for many growers to use the system.

AgJOBS provides fixes for the most significant problems with H-2A, but it is going to take time to reform this program and put together a system that works for everyone—workers, employers, and the government. In the meantime, specialty crop growers need workers. AgJOBS addresses this problem and the issue of unregistered workers in the country illegally, through the blue card program. The blue card program is not amnesty for illegal aliens. Rather, it is a way to identify workers who have made a contribution to the agricultural economy through their labors in the past and gets them "into the system."

Under the AgJOBS proposal, workers who can prove a track record of agricultural labor in the United States can apply for a blue card, which grants temporary worker status. To qualify, workers must pay a fine and taxes, and pass a background check. They are then required to work a certain number of days in agriculture each year for three to five years. At the end of this period, workers could apply for a green card, which would allow permanent worker status in the country.

Moving forward

Unlike some of the other comprehensive immigration proposals, AgJOBS has a great deal of support, both on Capitol Hill and across the country. The lead sponsors of the bill hope to attach it to the larger immigration package for final passage. However, if movement on the overall reform package is stalled, the sponsors are committed to move AgJOBS as a separate piece of legislation.

To ensure that agricultural labor reform is passed this year, the apple industry and supporters in other areas of agriculture need to take an even more active role to protect and promote their business future. USApple, at the direction of our board of trustees, will be implementing our plan to add continued pressure on Capitol Hill to achieve a solution this year. Broad involvement by the entire apple industry—and beyond—will be needed for these efforts to be successful.